Texts for Nothing? On Tom McCarthy
The first manifesto came in 1999, declaring boldly, cryptically and with an indeterminate quantity of facetiousness that "death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit." The "we" was the International Necronautical Society (INS), of which the then-30-year-old and still unpublished British novelist Tom McCarthy was founder and self-declared general secretary. "We are all necronauts, always, already," the manifesto continued, winking with those concluding coupled adverbs at the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Other lines echoed Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot ("Let us deliver ourselves over utterly to death, not in desperation but rigorously, creatively"); but for all its Franco- and necrophiliac pomp, the fledgling INS undercut any risked pretentiousness with straight-faced prankish glee.
The art world lapped it up, opening galleries, museums and residencies to McCarthy's INS, which for the next decade would waggishly skewer and exalt its avant-garde heritage with each new document and event. In 2003 McCarthy announced a purge of the group's First Committee, expelling most of its founding members—two of them for "reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics" (they got book contracts) and another, the playwright Matt Parker, for the crime of "not being dead." Parker would be officially reinstated upon his death in 2009, two years after McCarthy and INS "chief philosopher" Simon Critchley (of the New School and, lately, the blog-ed page of the New York Times) issued a "Joint Statement on Inauthenticity," in a few opening breaths squeezing in references to Heidegger, Empedocles, Baudelaire, Joyce and Wile E. Coyote.
The declaration, read at an event that may or may not have transpired by men who may or may not have been McCarthy and Critchley, was at once a Derridean assault on all philosophical notions of being-as-presence and an attack on any pretense of authenticity in art. The necronaut officials cast their lot, as good Modernists have for the past fifteen decades, with art as artifice, imitation, play. "Art's dirty secret is inauthenticity all the way down," they announced, ceremoniously opening a bag from which the cat had long ago fled. From Baudelaire to Warhol to Bowie to Prince and giddy, giddy Gaga, that secret's all over the dial.
This would all be so much clever art world frippery if McCarthy were not also a formidable talent as a novelist. And literature—or at least its English-language market-prose variant; poetry's not quite so daft—is the one contemporary popular art form that still falls for its own naturalist swindle. It's the only dupe so credulous (or cynical) as to require occasional reminding that even, and especially, in the sparkling heights of realism, art is naught but theft and apery and con, and its transient truths are wrought from chains of falsities. To tear dark Saint Bataille gently out of context: "Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so." You don't have to embrace Bataille's goofball mysticism and fetishization of violence—or McCarthy's tongue-half-in-cheek adaptation thereof—to join them both in asking literature to acknowledge itself as a far craftier and more adventurous playmate than even the most faithful of mirrors.
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In 2005 McCarthy published an odd, smart and viciously funny novel called Remainder with the small French art press Metronome. Despite the title's nod to Derrida—as in, ahem, "the non-present remainder of a differential mark cut off from its putative 'production' or origin"—Remainder wore its theory lightly. For all McCarthy's prêt-à-porter avant-gardism, the novel's prose is straightforward, univocal and relatively unself-conscious, its plot linear and unadorned. This is not to say that Remainder is a simple book, but McCarthy took pains not to announce its mischievous intents too boldly. It wore pressed khakis in lieu of black leather.
McCarthy's philosophical rejection of authenticity and presence has consequences for the novel as a form. It implies a repudiation of the basic mythological structure undergirding what gets called "realism" in literature: the transit through time of more or less stable entities known as characters, generally toward the revelation of previously hidden and potentially redemptive truths about themselves. Contrast that with Remainder's nameless and almost featureless narrator, recently recovered from an accident about which he can say nothing except that something—"Technology. Parts, bits"—fell on him out of the sky. He is awarded an £8.5 million settlement about which he evinces no excitement. Mainly he is struck (and stuck) by an unshakable feeling of inauthenticity, as if he is acting in his own life, and acting poorly. Beckett's Watt ("who had not seen a symbol, nor executed an interpretation, since the age of fourteen, or fifteen") he's not, but he lacks the usual set of carefully crafted psychological motivations. He begins the book a blank and ends it even more so. McCarthy couldn't care less about his past.
One evening, suffering through a cocktail party, the narrator takes refuge in the bathroom and, staring at a crack in the paint beside the mirror, has a vision (or a memory, or a déjà vu) of another bathroom in another apartment with identically cracked paint. Details flood in: the smell of liver drifting up from the old woman's flat beneath his; the piano music from the flat below that; the black cats on the roof across the street. And in that remembered or imagined apartment, he is certain he felt "real": "Not awkward, acquired, second-hand, but natural." So he hires a team to search out the building from his vision, then goes ahead and finds it himself. He buys it and the building across the street, and has both renovated to precisely match every recollected detail. He hires another team (not actors but "re-enactors") to play the piano player, the "liver lady," other bit players from his déjà vu. He has the roof across the way stocked with cats. (They keep sliding off, requiring frequent replacement.)
The irony will not be missed that the most absurd and elaborate artifice is necessary to create the illusion of the real. As McCarthy puts it elsewhere: "the counterfeit is the pre-condition of the 'real': the very notions of the 'real' and 'natural' are generated and sustained through an elaborate economy of cultural conventions—artificial signs that, having done their job, pretend merely to represent the very thing they have created."
His novel, rest assured, is more fun than the theory behind it. The narrator's obsession builds. He enacts other re-enactments: re-creating a banal encounter in a tire shop; a gang murder a few blocks from his flat; the moment just before the re-enactment of the gang murder (for which he must hire new re-enactors to play the re-enactors). In each, he aims with unmitigated absurdity "to be real—to become fluent, natural, to cut out the detour that sweeps us around what's fundamental to events, preventing us from touching their core." Then things really get weird—a bank heist, a hijacking, re-enactments of events that have not yet transpired—and gloriously so.
Through all of this, McCarthy doesn't stray far from the INS's original bullet-pointed mission. (One of the Necronauts' early happenings involved the meticulous restaging of a mob shootout on an Amsterdam street.) I won't be giving anything away if I say that death haunts these re-enactments. The man killed by gangsters, McCarthy's narrator says, "had become a symbol of perfection.... He'd done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him." Hunger for the real, McCarthy suggests, is the death drive reconfigured.
In the two years that followed the initial publication of Remainder, something almost miraculous occurred, something that isn't supposed to happen anymore to obscure and eccentric novels with a rigorous intellectual bent. The book became a hit. It leapfrogged from its tiny French art press to a small, well-respected British press (Alma) and thence to a large and prestigious American press (Vintage). It was reviewed twice in the New York Review of Books, once by Joyce Carol Oates and a second time by Zadie Smith, for whom it proved something of a revelation; it typified the less traveled of her "Two Paths for the Novel," the other being the well-trod path of "lyrical Realism" epitomized for her by Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. (Zadie, are there really only two paths?) A film version of Remainder is reportedly in the works. McCarthy must be pleased: actors will re-enact his re-enactments and the re-enactments of their re-enactments. Whither goes the real?
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In 2007, the year Remainder appeared in the United States, McCarthy published two books in Britain: a novel called Men in Space, much of which predates Remainder, and hasn't yet found a New World release, and a delightful work of literary criticism called Tintin and the Secret of Literature, published here in 2008. Ostensibly a deconstruction of, and affectionate tribute to, the Belgian cartoonist Hergé's cowlicked serial adventurer, McCarthy's Tintin study also functions as a convenient guide to some of the obsessions that animate his new and most ambitious novel, C: Freud's Wolf Man, crypts and cysts and codes, transmission and static, technology and death.
C stands first of all for Carrefax, the surname of McCarthy's protagonist, Serge—as in the silken fabric; as in a surge or wave or sudden burst of current; and as in Sergei Pankajev, the subject of Freud's case study in infantile neurosis, who is better known as the Wolf Man and to whom our Serge bears more than a passing resemblance. We'll get to that. For now forget Remainder's stark nouveau roman minimalism. In C, Nabokovian wordplay abounds. The characters not only have names, but each name is a web of echoes and allusions. So let Carrefax lead you to "carapace"—insects are important here—or to "caracole," with its spiraling, cryptlike depths, even to deathly "catafalque." Dig in deeper and you'll find "fax," of course, short for "facsimile" and denoting not only technology and transmission but replication—key concerns in C's cosmography. And in that prefix you might hear kara, Turkish for "black," or perhaps even kar, Syldavian for "king" (Syldavian being the language spoken in the fictional Balkan nation of Syldavia, where, you may recall, brave Tintin foiled a Bordurian plot to steal King Ottokar's scepter). Jam these associations together if you like—"black king of technological transmission" is not a bad descriptor for young Serge—or let the allusions drift and frolic, as McCarthy suggests in his Tintin study, as a "dynamic set of overlayings and cross-encodings...that resonate at levels far beyond that of any individual, re-encrypting themselves as they speak."